Friday, July 30, 2010

Tulpenmanie, Redux

Gardeners are fickle sorts. Yes, fickle. Not to mention easily prone to seduction. 

We are tempted by pretty flowers, new "shinier" models. Knowing this, and understanding our mid-February desperation, seed, bulb, and garden companies distribute their catalogs--veritable garden pornography--and shamelessly play upon our promiscuity, certain that flashy colors, new variegations, and "deer resistant" varietals will seduce us. The story is as old as the Garden of Eden. Bright shiny apple? Sure, why not. It sure beats this pedestrian Bartlett pear. To hell with the wrath of God. I'll be dead anyway, and it won't be my problem.

And then came along the tulip.

Tulips first arrived in Europe from Turkey in the mid-sixteenth century and caused quite a stir, especially among the Dutch who, as I have observed, love their gardens. Being "exotic" imports, bulbs were naturally expensive, and only the aristocratic could afford them (or use them, as they had the leisure time to garden in the first place). By the first third of the seventeenth century, the Dutch provinces were under the spell of Tulpenmanie, a.k.a. tulip mania or the tulip craze. Tulip bulbs were the new gold, which, superfluous as it is, had replaced salt as the most valuable commodity. (At least tulip bulbs produce flowers; gold produces nothing, though perhaps jealousy.)

In any case, by late 1636, Tulpenmanie was in full swing. Bulb prices skyrocketed. Speculators bought bulbs at inflated prices, certain that they could sell the promise of spring blooms, especially the coveted red-yellow, purple-white, and red-white variegated flowers. Tulip bulb speculation, and tulip bulb short-selling was the 17th century version of the sub-prime mortgage. History does repeat itself.

At a certain point, potential buyers decide that a particular price exceeds the intended and perceived value of the good, and decline to purchase. That's exactly what happened in early 1637; the tulip market crashed. Those who bought bulbs on credit refused to pay their outstanding balances. Amassed wealth disappeared in days.

The culprits were few. Middle class folks who had found themselves with a little extra cash, a small plot of land along their houses, and a desire to beautify their surroundings, were assisted by eager nurseries which began to mass produce tulip bulbs from seeds; burgeoning supply forced prices downwards.

And then there was the hyacinth, that flashy little phallus that wooed so many Dutch. Ah, how fickle gardeners fickle that many (artisans and nobility alike) went bankrupt. An economy crashed. All while waging a war against the Spanish for their independence. At least that worked out.

Recently, I came to understand the psychology behind Tulpenmanie, having experienced the amorous introduction, the seduction, the titillation, the orgasm, and then the sense of deflation that comes afterwards--all in the span of an hour or so. Viet and I took an evening stroll (mind you, the sun did not set until nearly 10 p.m.) along Amsterdam's Herengracht and Singel canals and suddenly found ourselves at the (closed for the day) Bloemenmarkt. I could describe such a find in decidedly crude sexual terms, but I shan't. My dear reader will understand what I mean.

Guess where I was the next morning? After scouting out which sellers had US/Canada import quality tulip bulbs, I soon identified 5, 6, then 8, then 9, then 12 varietals to bring home. Oh, how lovely! Oh, how exotic! Look at this double petal varietal! And that saw-tooth petaled tulip! Oh, that one, and this one, and, and, and... I was in a tizzy, a downward spiral, the bank account emptying as I twirled and whirled and as new bags caught my eye. And then it hit me: I was crazy. My market crashed.

In the end, I decided upon 5 varietals, only 5, which, given that each bag contained 10 bulbs, was actually quite a lot for my garden. Perhaps too many. I only bought one flashy varietal: Corona (Tulipa Kaufmanniana), with butter yellow petals and fire red centers. I also bought Tulipa Triumph Deep Blue; Tulipa Triumph White; Queen of the Night (black); and Prinses Irene, with orange petals and deep red center (which, admittedly, I bought in honor of the Dutch football team).  

Surprisingly, Customs didn't even stop me upon re-entry, even though I did indicate on the required form that I was importing agricultural material. She probably took one look at me and thought, seeing that I had arrived from the Netherlands, "another homo, another bag of tulip bulbs, blah, blah" and thus waved me through. (Of course that's what she thought. After all, in November 2001 when flying from New York to Denver, security officials told me I could not carry my six 19th century Wedgwood dessert plates on the plane--of course they told me this AFTER I checked my luggage. "Why," I asked. "Because these can be broken and used as weapons." Gasping, I "clutched my pearls" and exclaimed, "Break Wedgwood?! I would never break Wedgwood." He looked at his supervisor, who rolled his eyes. He let me carry my Wedgwood dessert plates on board and back to the safety of my Denver home.)

Now the question remains: where the heck am I going to plant 50 bulbs?

Other People's Gardens: Belgium and the Presence of Absence

Virginia Woolf mused in Orlando that clothes “have more important offices than merely to keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world's view of us.”  I should like to adapt that statement to fit current sentiments: gardens have more important offices than to fill one’s time or make a pretty montage; they change our view of the world and the world's view of us.

Surely that is a quirky way to begin an entry on Belgium, and surely it imposes a heavy burden on gardens, but the adaptation has its merits.

Before our trip, upon hearing that we were staying in Brussels, most people immediately reported how ugly and disagreeable Brussels is (save for the Grand Place) and that we must vacate the city and head to Bruges and Antwerp and other "more beautiful" cities. But, opinions are subjective and one should never form preconceived notions based on other people's experiences and opinions, even if one may take them under advisement.

Much to our delight, we enjoyed Brussels. True, most buildings were very gray or black (the effect of years of air pollution; but the same can be said for many buildings in many cities around the world). True, more than a significant portion of elegant buildings were hidden under scaffolding as workers erased the accumulation of soot of years past. True, one found an odd assortment of buildings: 17th century palais next to 20th century concrete and glass unit, and everything in between. But one sees this across Europe: evidence of the ruins of wars, reminders of not-too-distant pasts when the Europeans themselves were driven by the madness of ideology and racism. (But, in my humble architectural opinion, such diversity, even if the product of brutality, add to the city's charm.) True, I think we may have experienced a total of 10 hours of sun in the 5 days we were in Brussels; the skies were continually gray, the buildings gray, my photographs all cast in a gray hue; but no matter. The vibrancy, joys, and verve of Brussels stem from its status as "capital" of the European Union and all the diversity that that brings, from its citizens, from its many cafes and culinary delights.

Yet one thing, in my opinion, does detract from Brussels’ allure, and that is the omnipresent presence of absence: the absence of gardens and flowers, of planters and flower boxes adorning homes; the happy marriage between sidewalk and house, so happy in fact that nary a weed grows; all of this—the multiple absences, the marriages between stone and stone, stone and concrete, stone and steel, all of it casts the city in a peculiar dull pallor.

Sure, this may be said of many a city, and thus I suppose I am unfair in my criticism for singling out Brussels. But even in New York outside the nearly exclusive commercial zones—the upper East and West Sides, Chelsea, Greenwich, Lower Manhattan, Tribeca, the Lower East Side—one sees front gardens, evidence of rooftop gardens, window boxes, flower boxes, and the like. This is not to suggest Brussels lacks parks or public gardens; and indeed the wealthy neighborhoods of Brussels do possess front and back yard gardens. But the central city itself, whether by accident or design, exists in the presence of absence.

One day, an acquaintance, R, took us in his car to Liège Province to offer us a glimpse of life in the French influenced countryside—a necessary excursion given our exposure to Flemish life in Belgium in the guise of Ghent/Gent/Gand and Bruges/Brugge. The drive was spectacular—not primarily because of the scenery (dense evergreen forests, rolling hills and mountains of the Ardennes), picturesque chateaus and old farmhouses with thick stone walls and fortifications, but primarily because it altered my perspective and enabled me to develop a healthier appreciation of Belgium. There were gardens here and there, and some flower boxes; nothing grand or extensive (we were, after all, driving through rural and forested areas; and Huy, Dinant, and Namur were medieval towns with narrow buildings and streets closely aligned, often situated next to massive hills on which stood equally massive citadels, and thus no room for the bourgeois activity of gardening existed). And many gardens were walled, and hence obstructed from view, save for one (clearly bourgeois) house in Dinant (pictured above) whose gates were open, thus permitting a visual thief like me to capture the beauty inside.

But those few flower boxes or garden plots, shaped boxwoods and patches of flowers did instill a sense of appreciation for what was. But they also made more palpable Brussels as a zone in which the presence of absence dominates. Brussels, me thinks, is in need of a change of clothes.

Thursday, July 29, 2010


Viet and I met several Americans (all "young" women--twenties and thirties) on our return flight home, all traveling alone save for two friends who took advantage of cheap airfare to visit Denmark for 5 days, and I was struck by a comment each of them made on separate occasions: they were all very happy to be returning home.

Traveling when young(er) is easy: having few if any attachments liberates the self in so many senses, and enables one to pick up and leave unencumbered, bound only by a plane ticket, perhaps a hotel reservation, and whatever preconceptions one may have developed of a place. Many of my students readily take advantage of the university's multiple study abroad programs; they leave with abandon, armed with energy, excitement, desire to see the world, and a healthy dose of idealism.

But as one grows older, attachments come in many forms: children, pets, homes, jobs, gardens. Traveling becomes a bit more psychically difficult, and the return home is looked forward to, joyous, even sweet. Our roots urge us, nay, pull us back from our jaunts.

True, I was ready to come home days before our departure. I turned to Viet and announced my readiness. I had, in the language of my sage friend Jim, truly vacated.

Most of us have obligations to which we become accustomed and which compel us always to return. Many of us are fortunate enough to create a life, thereby making the return bearable if not enjoyable. A few of us actually grow into life, and thus the return is as important as the time away. The house and gardens at 410 have offered me both the opportunity to create a life and to grow into life--and seeing Rose Mallow, now reaching to my nose, and her single glowing red flower, even in the darkness of night, painted my return in most illustrious of colors.

Armed with my camera, I emerged from the house the next morning to photograph this beauty, only to find her only flower dropped to the ground. Welcome home. But she is rife with buds, and I look forward to her amorous display of seduction.

I scanned the gardens and was surprised by what survived and flourished in the extreme heat and humidity, and also by what died. One purple day lily, which had a blossom when I departed, had two single mini-leaves; clearly it died back at some point but with recent heavy rains it began to grow again. Gaura died; or perhaps is merely aestivating. Several of the hostas in the rear garden baked, as did many of the ferns.  Ligularia flowered, but now the flower stalk stands burned, dried, cracked, and several of the leaves have fallen to the ground unable to withstand the heat.

But the Rudolph Waleuphrud Euphorbia doubled in size, while Tall Purpletop Verbena looks like it tripled. The Provence lavender has produced another round of blooms, the Catmint is now quite tall albeit leggy, and the Feverfew has rejuvenated after what I assume to have been long weeks of crispy edginess. The Lemongrass, which had 12 stalks when I departed, now has 25. The potted mint is flourishing finally, while of two patches of mint in the garden one struggles for existence while the other seems to have vanished. My friend Kathy mailed me a clump of Siberian irises earlier this season, and it had struggled since I planted it. Now it flourishes. 

So many changes, and so much work to be done.

A praying mantis greeted me this morning, coming up and out from within the chrysthanthemum, probably wondering when I was going to start my chores. In due time, in due time. 

Welcome home, indeed. It feels rather good.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Other People's Gardens: The White Garden at Sissinghurst

Most gardeners, I believe, fantasize about larger plots of land on which to work their magic. Most gardeners, I believe, would be ecstatic to have space for a series of color-themed gardens: a white garden here, a purple border there, a yellow garden in the front, a red border in the back. But most of us are not blessed with such space, and thus must make do with what we have--often in the most imaginative ways. The Dutch, English, Japanese, and Americans, as I have seen, must surely rank in my estimation as the most creative of small-space gardening.

Vita Sackville-West was born into a family of considerable wealth and privilege, and thus could afford to buy Sissinghurst, a rather dilapidated Elizabethan "castle." According to her grandson, she used her enormous (obscene?) inheritance to restore and maintain the many appreciable though not in any sense grand buildings on the estate (the grand mansion had long disappeared), and create her garden. (I admit, I am not fair to label it "her" garden, as Harold Nicolson, her husband, did much to plan and create the gardens.) Nearing the end of Vita's life, her wealth depleted, the couple lived off the royalties from their respective publications.
One of the most celebrated gardens at Sissinghurst is the White Garden; one feels compelled out of respect to capitalize its very name. Having experienced it, having witnessed others' reactions, having felt its ethereal character, I can testify to why that is so. The White Garden floats on air; indeed, the White Garden may be the experience of air itself.

Where the physical body imposes limitations on our experience of life, the mind compensates through thought or imagination. The experience of air--of living in and with air--may be felt while riding a bike (not as a sport, but as an enjoyment, a leisurely recreation when we have abandoned all pretense and stress and surrendered to the activity itself and allow ourselves to experience the sensations of the moment). But I have discovered another experience of air--one much less obvious, one less palpable. And that is The White Garden at Sissinghurst.

Most attention focuses on the plants and design, right so. But my first inclination was to look directly at the center of the White Garden under the rose portal, on which a few flowers of Rose Mulliganii remained (purely for my benefit, I am sure!). There stands one of the few surviving Vita and Harold relics: a 17th century Chinese oil or ginger jar which Harold purchased while on diplomatic assignment in Cairo. That set a necessary tone for me: it grounded me as I began to float in the space that is the White Garden.

The design is ingenious. While it looks quite geometrical, nothing but the boxwood hedges, low to the ground, is square.

Inside each "hedge box" exists a veritable phantasmagoria. The effect is simultaneously uplifting and soothing; if the singular white specimen soothes, the eye soon catches an array of whites and silvers, one's field of vision extends, and one floats above, living on air itself.

The entire experience--not simply the White Garden, but the whole of it--proved incandescent and thus indescribable. I look back at my journal entries and photos, and cannot quite articulate that which I felt, that which I experienced, and that which I came to think and remember. This seems to me the mark of an expert garden: to leave the visitor with a sense of awe and a sense of aspiration, enveloped in the ineffable singularity of the self and the garden. 


Other People's Gardens: Amsterdam and the Netherlands

To remark that the Dutch love their gardens is akin to observing that the British love their tea. One need only think of the famous Keukenhof Gardens; tulips; and the tulpenmanie (the Tulip Craze) of 1636-1637 to understand that I only state the obvious.

But so too do the omnipresent gardens in the Netherlands speak to the obvious. Gardens came in multiple forms:

in window boxes adorning the facades of the quintessential tall, narrow Amsterdam canal houses;

in the microscopic front plots of city properties (Hollyhocks seemed to be an Amsterdam favorite);

on balconies and rooftops--pitch permitting;

on houseboats--yes, on houseboats; and,

around country and farm houses.

My favorite manifestation of the Dutch love of gardening, however, comes in the form of what I call the "summer garden community."  These small communities made very efficient use of the land. Neatly laid out on a grid pattern, diminutive houses were surrounded by luxurious plantings, each garden more spectacular than the next. Some even had greenhouses attached!

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to capture these garden communities from "above," as we sped by many of them on the train. But one day while biking from Delft to Den Haag, Viet and I veered off a primary bike path and explored a less traveled path through the woods. We happened to come upon an idyllic garden community, surrounded (as most things are in the Netherlands) by a canal.

Immediately I dismounted and was plunged into another world, a mysterious world, a world in which the garden expresses the experience of time--not (as I later found with Sissinghurst) as an homage to time, a snapshot almost of a time long passed, but as living time, a remarkably bold announcement of being in time.

I was struck by the prevalence of these communities; they seemed to proliferate like hollyhocks on Amsterdam streets. If Americans splurge on beach, lake, and mountain houses, so many Dutch, it seemed, splurged on 5x7 or 6x8 garden homes--the garden plots bigger than the houses themselves! And many appeared to be quite lived in: an ordered and aesthetic life, the efficient use of space dictated by smallness. 

Other People's Gardens: Sissinghurst

Yesterday morning, Tuesday, 20 July, I prepared for the pilgrimage. These preparations, however, were of the more mundane sort: gathering the camera, deciding whether or not to take my journal, looking at the train schedule to coordinate with arrival at Charing Cross via the Tube.

In reality, preparing for the pilgrimage took years, not that I was ever conscious of the fact that visiting the famed gardens designed by Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicolson would be a quasi-religious experience, nor did I really wish such a visit to be (because as we all know heightened expectations are always diminished by reality). I read books, viewed pictures, embraced everything Vita and Harold, Vita and Virginia (Woolf), and even recently completed (on this trip, as a matter of fact) Adam Nicolson's Sissinghurst: An Unfinished History.

But my reality, the reality of trekking to the gardens, immediately donned the sense of a pilgrimage--so much so that I overlooked the exorbitantly high cost of renting a taxi as the National Trust bus no longer ran (it was deemed not profitable) and the local bus took far too long.

Once the taxi deposited us, we purchased our entrance tickets and walked past the booth. My first reaction was, admittedly, one of diminished expectations. The Elizabethan Prospect Tower was not as tall as the pictures I had seen made it appear. The property was smaller than imagined. And the hordes of people--which I sort of expected--were more than a bit disturbing.

I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, removed my camera from its case, and something wondrous suddenly overcame me: I adjusted to the scale of the property, set in the lovely Kent countryside, and felt the enormity of the place and its history wash over me. The Tower loomed large above and before me; the brick reflected a warm reddish-brown light, the plants sparkled, flowers bowed before me. I was here: walking the same grounds and gardens touched, nay, created, by Vita herself.

We strolled through the gate that Queen Elizabeth I once passed through and into the top courtyard, meandered along the walls of the house and to the purple border, poked our heads into the Long Library, a quintessential "old world" shrine to walls of books, an enormous fireplace, and antiques--indeed, the accumulations of generations of family purchases and gifts. As Harold Nicolson, Adam's father and Vita's son, wrote about his mother, "she must be surrounded by evidence of time," and one distinctly felt that time, though not, as he suggested, the burden of the ages.

Time unfolded before me: the Priest, White, Cottage, and Rose gardens; the Yew and Lime walks; the Purple border and the orchard; the Elizabethan tower and the 1420 house in which they lived. Vita's writing room in the Tower, only visible to the visitor through a wrought iron gate, and of course the library, froze time at the moment of Vita's death on 2 June 1962, the moment the family decided to memorialize her and leave her writing room exactly as she left it.

Their garden, I am convinced, was Vita and Harold's attempt to grapple with the passage of time, to hold onto it in some appreciable manner. Care, they understood and Vita must have immediately appreciated upon first seeing Sissinghurst in April 1930, must be bestowed upon time and its residues, its artifacts, lest all of it dissolve like the grand Elizabethan mansion that once stood on the property. And so Vita and Harold picked up some trowels and began the act of recovery and the act of capturing time even as time passed--efforts as it were to beautify the property, but also efforts to "save" Sissinghurst from the erosion of time.

Somehow, armed with that knowledge, the crumbling brick and the few remaining walls of buildings past feel restored, equipped with an energy and a power to confront another 500 years of life. The gardens do not serve as eye candy; indeed, the gardens become the act of restoration itself.

More photos and more entries on Sissinghurst to come

Monday, July 19, 2010

Other People's Gardens: Luxembourg City and Clervaux

On Saturday the 10th we took a slightly less than 1 hour train ride to Clervaux in the north of Luxembourg near the Belgian-German border. After exploring the town center (this being a small town, our wanderings took but a few minutes), and lunched at a café situated in a rehabilitated medieval alley, we toured a UNESCO World Heritage site: the Chateau de Clervaux and the “Family of Man” photography exhibition collated by Edward Steichen. The Chateau (or castle) dates to the 12th century, but its fortified walls were destroyed in the late 19th century. After the D-Day Landing, the Americans successfully took control of and defended the fortress perched above the medieval town during WWII, but an errant German artillery shell hit the castle in December 1944 and the Chateau de Clervaux was completely destroyed. Rebuilt, it stands as an errant, gleaming white structure amidst a sea of evergreen and muted colored buildings below.
An additional “treat” awaited us: the "best" Gregorian chants east of the Rhine by Benedictine monks at the Abbey de St. Maurice. We began walking up the road, for the Abbey stood prominently above the town and the Chateau on a not-quite-mountain but certainly more-than-hill. The heat wave from the United States followed us, and the sun was unrelenting. We soon discovered that we were heading in the wrong direction. A friendly Luxembourgian offered us directions, and so we set on the right course up the quasi-mountain. This path, now used by predominantly by mountain bikers and certainly not by the septagenarian monks, was a veritable path of penance—a steep, nearly vertical incline—that the monks most likely took from Abbey to town center and back. We hiked and hiked, and perspired and perspired: this was no meandering path with switchbacks, but a grueling ascent with mostly land and a but a wee sliver of sky above you.

And yet the path was not entirely punishing or austere, for along it I found the remains of a garden life: horseradish and currant bushes, foxglove, heather, and Scotch brooms, not to mention the ubiquitous woodland (mostly Ostrich) ferns. Who knew penance could be so gratifying?

Thus if I could append a subtitle to the subtitle, it would be “whimsy.” Luxembourgian gardens are to my untrained eye an exercise of whimsy, which may be defined in two senses. First, as intimated by the photographs in my previous entry (but which the severely sleep-deprived mind could not articulate), Luxembourgian gardens may be formal (perhaps the ordering dictate of diminutive plots of land in a diminutive country), but this formality is punctuated or assuaged or mitigated by a distinct playfulness: whimsical accoutrements (certainly not of the pink flamingo or garden gnome sort), shapes of boxwood hedges, Grecian blue wading pools, and color.

And Luxembourgian gardens are whimsical in yet another sense: one finds plants in the most unexpected of places, remains of a day long past. I sighted rose bushes on the 2nd level of a 15th century guard tower, now a lone sentinel, its walls having collapsed around it long ago, and poppies at its base; heather and Scotch broom, foxgloves and currant bushes in the middle of the woods on a path to the Benedictine monastery.

Luxembourg lacks the grand, pretentious boulevards of many a European city, though it surely is spectacular in its diminutiveness, and that, I think, owes to the spirit of the people: playful, casual, and every bit as prone to celebrating the remains of many a previous day just as much as they look forward to a profitable and gleaming future—but always constrained by a formality within which you can be as whimsical as you like.  

Friday, July 9, 2010

Other People's Gardens: Luxembourg City

To describe a city--in this case, the capital of Luxembourg--as a garden in the singular is, admittedly, a bit excessive. Perhaps we can attribute hyperbolic description to jet lag (though sleeping quite late today by European standards most likely cured me of the time difference). Or perhaps we can attribute the description to geographic, climactic, and historic specters of reality that frame the experience of life in Luxembourg City.

By "other people's gardens: Luxembourg City" I do not mean to suggest that the city is a grand horticultural bazaar, though one can find lovely botanical arrangements in all of the appropriate sites: in boxes along outdoor cafes; along the gorges that traverse through the heart of the city; near the Palais Grand-Ducal (residence of the Duke of Luxembourg); near government ministries (I walked into the gated compound of the Presidential Offices); and, for this part of the world, at sites of ill repute which are always associated with war (near our hotel, the Place de Martyrs, site of the rounding up of Nazi victims).

Rather, I mean to describe this ineffable beauty created by the backdrop of history (14th - 17th century ramparts and bridges, turrets and ponts). Terraced gardens proliferate along the gorges that frame the magnificent Ville Haute, truly a "City on the Hill" in the strictest geographic sense. These most captivated me, and I became slightly envious with the material these gardeners have at their fingertips. Imagine: your climbing hydrangea sprawling up the remains of a bridge constructed in 1395! Imagine your vegetables and herbs (not to mention a few grapes) growing up the sides of the famous casemates--an immense underground military defense system built by the Spanish (who, thanks to marital land swaps, ruled this land) in 1644, but under the already established 10th century fortress constructed by Count Sigefroy.

Most of the private gardens that I have encountered have been formal: perhaps owing to the diminutive plots in a diminutive country, or perhaps owing to the predominant French cultural influence. No matter: the result is spectacular, and, curiously, the formality of garden design melds with the more relaxed feel of the city, the country, and the people. 

The sense of possibility is heightened (pun intended) by the grandeur of the gorges, the spires of cathedrals, and the magnitude of the blue skies. Purples, yellows, spikes of yellow, roses and alliums, mosses and ferns, horse chestnut and catalpa tress in full bloom: the garden that is Luxembourg City beckons.